Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Fictional detectives are a quirky lot. Sherlock
Holmes fortified his powers of ratiocination with the
help of cocaine and morphine. Hercule Poirot
showed tell-tale signs of obsessive-compulsive
disorder—he was strangely fixated on keeping an
exact balance of 444 pounds, 4 shillings and 4 pence
in his bank account. Nero Wolfe, that Falstaff of
private eyes, weighed almost
300 pounds and hated to leave
his home—I guess that’s what
happens when your author’s
name is Stout.

But when it comes to the modern
and postmodern novel, the inves-
tigators get even stranger. In
Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem
relies on a detective afflicted with
Tourette syndrome, a disorder that
leaves its victims with nervous tics and a tendency to
exclaim obscene, insulting or inappropriate remarks. Not
a good thing on a low-key stakeout, needless to say!  In
Thomas Pynchon's recent novel
Inherent Vice, our private
investigator is a hippie whose excessive marijuana and
drug use has left him with barely enough functioning
brain cells to recognize his surroundings, let alone
unravel a murder mystery. In Paul Aster’s
The New York
Trilogy, the line is blurred even further, and it is
sometimes hard to say whether our investigator solves
crimes or merely writes about them.

Then we come to Mark Haddon’s
The Curious Incident of
the Dog in the Night-Time
in which a 15-year-old autistic
boy tries to find the culprit in a local murder. Christopher
Boone models himself on his hero Sherlock Holmes—
that is, when he is not dreaming of becoming an
astronaut—and keeps a journal of the progress of his
investigation as part of project at his school for students
with special needs.

The crime: the mysterious death of a neighbor's dog.
Okay, it’s not a robbery on Fort Knox or a sinister
terrorist plot, but every private investigator needs to start
somewhere. And even Sherlock Holmes was caught up
in a case about a hound back in the day. Even so, it is
hard to make much headway when you are afraid of the
colors yellow and brown, avoid strangers, and collapse
screaming when people get too close to you. But
Christopher perseveres despite his limitations and
obsessions—even rising above them when necessary.  

As this bare bones description makes clear,
The Curious
Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
is not your typical
detective story. Haddon defies our expectations in many
other ways. The “crime” is actually solved at a fairly
early stage of the novel, but the investigation uncovers
other secrets with more serious repercussions.
Christopher soon learns things about his own family, his
past and possible future, that are more unsettling, more
threatening to his psyche than the death of a canine.

The world at large frowns on this youngster’s attempts to
solve his crime. The police bring him in for questioning,
suspecting that he might have murdered the pooch
himself. Christopher’s father get the boy released, but
makes him promise to “keep his nose out of other people’
s business.” Even the owner of the dead dog gets angry
at him. Other neighbors discourage him. “You be careful,
young man.” “Look, son, do you really think you ought
to be going around asking questions like this?” “Perhaps
you should be talking to your father about this.”

Haddon, who has worked with autistic individuals, gives
his narrator great freedom to violate the conventions of
storytelling at almost every turn in the tale. When
Christopher wants to go off on a tangent—speculating
about God, human nature, or prime numbers—the author
lets him rip. Mathematics is one of Boone’s passions, and
the novel is constantly interrupted with tables, charts,
decision trees and expositions of various calculations and
concepts. As if this is not enough, an appendix includes a
detailed proof of a theorem involving a triangle. And you
thought mysteries should conclude with the solution of a
crime? Our narrator might reply that the solution of a
math puzzle can be just as elegant!

Haddon works with many other constraints here. His
prose is a metaphor-free zone. Boone’s mindset prevents
him from comprehending metaphors, and he sees them as
just another type of lie. Our hero also has difficulty
interpreting those obvious, everyday signals that most of
us take for granted—facial expressions, tones of voice,
etc.  His limited experience of modern life is so extreme
that some of the simplest expedients and phrases leave
him stymied. Given this framework, most of the riches of
the modern novel—relating to language or perspective—
are not available to our narrator.  Haddon's ability to
construct such a compelling story despite these obstacles
is remarkable.

By the same token, the emotional distance of Christopher
from his family, friends and surroundings, and the lavish
attention to numbers described above might suggest that
this is a cold book, devoid of passion and incapable of
touching the readers. Yet Haddon deserves credit for
pulling our heartstrings while maintaining a prose style
that is maddeningly neutral on a surface level. Boone,
who puts up psychological and physical barriers against
strangers, eventually invites us into the inner sanctum of
strangely placid worldview. That may not be the typical
denouement for a mystery tale, but it is quite an
achievement for a writer.

Ted Gioia's latest book is The Birth (and Death) of
the Cool
The Curious Incident of the
og in the Night-Time
by Mark Haddon
Click on image to purchase
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Postmodern Mystery
When reading Mark Haddon, be on the
lookout for the mysterious gaps in the text—
which are big enough to drive a getaway
vehicle through with five police cars in
pursuit. He has claimed that his
Sea of
(1996) went from a draft of
50,000 words to a finished work of 500.  
Haddon has it down to a system:  the secret
to good writing, he
assured one young
fan, is crossing out
much of what you
put down on paper.
Haddon mastered his
tight, crisp writing
style over many years
of writing for children,
a period that produced his
Agent Z books, in
which bored schoolboys wreak havoc and
leave behind a big Z in the spirit of Zorro.  
From such inauspicious beginnings, Haddon
went on to succeed in the world of literary
fiction with his successful 2003 novel
Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
which—something never achieved by Updike,
Roth, Mailer or Bellow—was marketed
simultaneously in two separate editions, one
for adults and another for youngsters.  
Haddon has also worked on television
projects, as an illustrator, and teaches creative
writing.   Take his class…but come equipped
with plenty of erasers.

Further Clues:

Mark Haddon's Home Page

Q&A with Mark Haddon by Boris Kachka
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
The Reading List
(with links to essays)

Peter Ackroyd

Douglas Adams
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective

Martin Amis
London Fields

Paul Auster
The New York Trilogy

Thomas Bernhard
The Lime Works

Jedediah Berry
The Manual of Detection

Alfred Bester
The Demolished Man

Roberto Bolaño

Jorge Luis Borges

Truman Capote
In Cold Blood

Michael Chabon
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Agatha Christie
The A.B.C. Murders

Robert Coover

Friedrich Dürrenmatt
The Pledge

Umberto Eco
Foucault's Pendulum
The Name of the Rose

David Gordon
The Serialist

Witold Gombrowicz

Mark Haddon
The Curious Incident of
the Dog in the Night-Time

Elizabeth Hand
Generation Loss

Patricia Highsmith
The Talented Mr. Ripley

Norman N. Holland
Death in a Delphi Seminar

Franz Kafka
The Trial

Jonathan Lethem
Gun, with Occasional Music
Motherless Brooklyn

Jean-Patrick Manchette
The Prone Gunman

Gabriel García Márquez
Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Cameron McCabe
The Face on the Cutting-Room

Philip MacDonald
The Rynox Murder

China Miéville
The City and the City

Mo Yan
The Republic of Wine

Patrick Modiano
Missing Person

Haruki Murakami
Kafka on the Shore
A Wild Sheep Chase

Vladimir Nabokov
Pale Fire

Joyce Carol Oates
Mysteries of Winterthurn

Flann O'Brien
The Third Policeman

Orhan Pamuk
The Black Book

Georges Perec
A Void

Marisha Pessl
Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Thomas Pynchon
The Crying of Lot 49
Inherent Vice

Alain Robbe-Grillet
The Erasers
The Voyeur

Leonardo Sciascia
The Day of the Owl
Equal Danger

Gilbert Sorrentino
Mulligan Stew

Theodore Sturgeon
Some of Your Blood

Miguel Syjuco

Other articles and feature:
50 Essential Postmodern Mysteries
The 8 Memes of the Postmodern Mystery
Selected Quotes on Detective Fiction  

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